Read an exclusive excerpt from David Levithan's 'Another Day'
In David Levithan’s ambitous—and successful—YA novel Every Day, the 16-year-old main character “A” wakes up every day in a different 16-year-old’s body (read Stephan Lee’s excellent review for a little more clarification). He’s grown used to the impermanence of his life (or lives), until he falls in love with a girl named Rhiannon, and is compelled to do all he can to spend one more day with her, no matter whose body he wakes up inhabiting. Every Day gave us A’s perspective on things, but in Levithan’s intriguing follow-up, Another Day, we get the same story again, this time from Rhiannon’s side.
It’s a tricky concept, but in Levithan’s hands it works—and there’s no better way to illustrate that than by showing the opening chapters from Every Day and Another Day here, side by side.
Another Day will be released on August 25.
EVERY DAY by David Levithan
I wake up.
Immediately I have to figure out who I am. It’s not just the body—opening my eyes and discovering whether the skin on my arm is light or dark, whether my hair is long or short, whether I’m fat or thin, boy or girl, scarred or smooth. The body is the easiest thing to adjust to, if you’re used to waking up in a new one each morning. It’s the life, the context of the body, that can be hard to grasp.
Every day I am someone else. I am myself—I know I am myself—but I am also someone else.
It has always been like this.
The information is there. I wake up, open my eyes, understand that it is a new morning, a new place. The biography kicks in, a welcome gift from the not-me part of the mind. Today I am Justin. Somehow I know this—my name is Justin—and at the same time I know that I’m not really Justin, I’m only borrowing his life for a day. I look around and know that this is his room. This is his home. The alarm will go off in seven minutes.
I’m never the same person twice, but I’ve certainly been this type before. Clothes everywhere. Far more video games than books. Sleeps in his boxers. From the taste of his mouth, a smoker. But not so addicted that he needs one as soon as he wakes up.
“Good morning, Justin,” I say. Checking out his voice. Low. The voice in my head is always different.
Justin doesn’t take care of himself. His scalp itches. His eyes don’t want to open. He hasn’t gotten much sleep.
Already I know I’m not going to like today.
It’s hard being in the body of someone you don’t like, because you still have to respect it. I’ve harmed people’s lives in the past, and I’ve found that every time I slip up, it haunts me. So I try to be careful.
From what I can tell, every person I inhabit is the same age as me. I don’t hop from being sixteen to being sixty. Right now, it’s only sixteen. I don’t know how this works. Or why. I stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago. I’m never going to figure it out, any more than a normal person will figure out his or her own existence. After a while, you have to be at peace with the fact that you simply are. There is no way to know why. You can have theories, but there will never be proof.
I can access facts, not feelings. I know this is Justin’s room, but I have no idea if he likes it or not. Does he want to kill his parents in the next room? Or would he be lost without his mother coming in to make sure he’s awake? It’s impossible to tell. It’s as if that part of me replaces the same part of whatever person I’m in. And while I’m glad to be thinking like myself, a hint every now and then of how the other person thinks would be helpful. We all contain mysteries, especially when seen from the inside.
The alarm goes off. I reach for a shirt and some jeans, but something lets me see that it’s the same shirt he wore yesterday. I pick a different shirt. I take the clothes with me to the bathroom, dress after showering. His parents are in the kitchen now. They have no idea that anything is different.
Sixteen years is a lot of time to practice. I don’t usually make mistakes. Not anymore.
I read his parents easily: Justin doesn’t talk to them much in the morning, so I don’t have to talk to them. I have grown accustomed to sensing expectation in others, or the lack of it. I shovel down some cereal, leave the bowl in the sink without washing it, grab Justin’s keys and go.
Yesterday I was a girl in a town I’d guess to be two hours away. The day before, I was a boy in a town three hours farther than that. I am already forgetting their details. I have to, or else I will never remember who I really am.
Justin listens to loud and obnoxious music on a loud and obnoxious station where loud and obnoxious DJs make loud and obnoxious jokes as a way of getting through the morning. This is all I need to know about Justin, really. I access his memory to show me the way to school, which parking space to take, which locker to go to. The combination. The names of the people he knows in the halls.
Sometimes I can’t go through these motions. I can’t bring myself to go to school, maneuver through the day. I’ll say I’m sick, stay in bed and read a few books. But even that gets tiresome after a while, and I find myself up for the challenge of a new school, new friends. For a day.
As I take Justin’s books out of his locker, I can feel someone hovering on the periphery. I turn, and the girl standing there is transparent in her emotions—tentative and expectant, nervous and adoring. I don’t have to access Justin to know that this is his girlfriend. No one else would have this reaction to him, so unsteady in his presence. She’s pretty, but she doesn’t see it. She’s hiding behind her hair, happy to see me and unhappy to see me at the same time.
Her name is Rhiannon. And for a moment—just the slightest beat—I think that, yes, this is the right name for her. I don’t know why. I don’t know her. But it feels right.
This is not Justin’s thought. It’s mine. I try to ignore it. I’m not the person she wants to talk to.
“Hey,” I say, keeping it casual.
“Hey,” she murmurs back.
She’s looking at the floor, at her inked-in Converse. She’s drawn cities there, skylines around the soles. Something’s happened between her and Justin, and I don’t know what it is. It’s probably not something that Justin even recognized at the time.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
I see the surprise on her face, even as she tries to cover it. This is not something that Justin normally asks.
And the strange thing is: I want to know the answer. The fact that he wouldn’t care makes me want it more.
“Sure,” she says, not sounding sure at all.
I find it hard to look at her. I know from experience that beneath every peripheral girl is a central truth. She’s hiding hers away, but at the same time she wants me to see it. That is, she wants Justin to see it. And it’s there, just out of my reach. A sound waiting to be a word.
She is so lost in her sadness that she has no idea how visible it is. I think I understand her—for a moment, I presume to understand her—but then, from within this sadness, she surprises me with a brief flash of determination. Bravery, even.
Shifting her gaze away from the floor, her eyes matching mine, she asks, “Are you mad at me?”
I can’t think of any reason to be mad at her. If anything, I am mad at Justin, for making her feel so diminished. It’s there in her body language. When she is around him, she makes herself small.
“No,” I say. “I’m not mad at you at all.”
I tell her what she wants to hear, but she doesn’t trust it. I feed her the right words, but she suspects they’re threaded with hooks.
This is not my problem; I know that. I am here for one day. I cannot solve anyone’s boyfriend problems. I should not change anyone’s life.
I turn away from her, get my books out, close the locker. She stays in the same spot, anchored by the profound, desperate loneliness of a bad relationship.
“Do you still want to get lunch today?” she asks.
The easy thing would be to say no. I often do this: sense the other person’s life drawing me in, and run in the other direction.
But there’s something about her—the cities on her shoes, the flash of bravery, the unnecessary sadness—that makes me want to know what the word will be when it stops being a sound. I have spent years meeting people without ever knowing them, and on this morning, in this place, with this girl, I feel the faintest pull of wanting to know. And in a moment of either weakness or bravery on my own part, I decide to follow it. I decide to find out more.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Lunch would be great.”
Again, I read her: What I’ve said is too enthusiastic. Justin is never enthusiastic.
“No big deal,” I add.
She’s relieved. Or, at least, as relieved as she’ll allow herself to be, which is a very guarded form of relief. By accessing, I know she and Justin have been together for over a year. That’s as specific as it gets. Justin doesn’t remember the exact date.
She reaches out and takes my hand. I am surprised by how good this feels.
“I’m glad you’re not mad at me,” she says. “I just want everything to be okay.”
I nod. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: We all want everything to be okay. We don’t even wish so much for fantastic or marvelous or outstanding. We will happily settle for okay, because most of the time, okay is enough.
The first bell rings.
“I’ll see you later,” I say.
Such a basic promise. But to Rhiannon, it means the world.
At first it was hard to go through each day without making any lasting connections, leaving any life-changing effects. When I was younger, I craved friendship and closeness. I would make bonds without acknowledging how quickly and permanently they would break. I took other people’s lives personally. I felt their friends could be my friends, their parents could be my parents. But after a while, I had to stop. It was too heartbreaking to live with so many separations.
I am a drifter, and as lonely as that can be, it is also remarkably freeing. I will never define myself in terms of anyone else. I will never feel the pressure of peers or the burden of parental expectation. I can view everyone as pieces of a whole, and focus on the whole, not the pieces. I have learned how to observe, far better than most people observe. I am not blinded by the past or motivated by the future. I focus on the present, because that is where I am destined to live.
I learn. Sometimes I am taught something I have already been taught in dozens of other classrooms. Sometimes I am taught something completely new. I have to access the body, access the mind and see what information it’s retained. And when I do, I learn. Knowledge is the only thing I take with me when I go.
I know so many things that Justin doesn’t know, that he will never know. I sit there in his math class, open his notebook, and write down phrases he has never heard. Shakespeare and Kerouac and Dickinson. Tomorrow, or some day after tomorrow, or never, he will see these words in his own handwriting and he won’t have any idea where they came from, or even what they are.
That is as much interference as I allow myself.
Everything else must be done cleanly.
Rhiannon stays with me. Her details. Flickers from Justin’s memories. Small things, like the way her hair falls, the way she bites her fingernails, the determination and resignation in her voice. Random things. I see her dancing with Justin’s grandfather, because he’s said he wants a dance with a pretty girl. I see her covering her eyes during a scary movie, peering between her fingers, enjoying her fright. These are the good memories. I don’t look at any others.
I only see her once in the morning, a brief passing in the halls between first and second period. I find myself smiling when she comes near, and she smiles back. It’s as simple as that. Simple and complicated, as most true things are. I find myself looking for her after second period, and then again after third and fourth. I don’t even feel in control of this. I want to see her. Simple. Complicated.
By the time we get to lunch, I am exhausted. Justin’s body is worn down from too little sleep and I, inside of it, am worn down from restlessness and too much thought.
I wait for her at Justin’s locker. The first bell rings. The second bell rings. No Rhiannon. Maybe I was supposed to meet her somewhere else. Maybe Justin’s forgotten where they always meet.
If that’s the case, she’s used to Justin forgetting. She finds me right when I’m about to give up. The halls are nearly empty, the cattle call has passed. She comes closer than she did before.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” she says.
She is looking to me. Justin is the one who makes the first
move. Justin is the one who figures things out. Justin is the one who says what they’re going to do.
It depresses me.
I have seen this too many times before. The unwarranted devotion. Putting up with the fear of being with the wrong person because you can’t deal with the fear of being alone. The hope tinged with doubt, and the doubt tinged with hope. Every time I see these feelings in someone else’s face, it weighs me down. And there’s something in Rhiannon’s face that’s more than just the disappointments. There is a gentleness there. A gentleness that Justin will never, ever appreciate. I see it right away, but nobody else does.
I take all my books and put them in the locker. I walk over to her and put my hand lightly on her arm.
I have no idea what I’m doing. I only know that I’m doing it.
“Let’s go somewhere,” I say. “Where do you want to go?”
I am close enough now to see that her eyes are blue. I am close enough now to see that nobody ever gets close enough to see how blue her eyes are.
“I don’t know,” she replies.
I take her hand. “Come on,” I tell her.
This is no longer restlessness—it’s recklessness. At first we’re walking hand in hand. Then we’re running hand in hand. That giddy rush of keeping up with one another, of zooming through the school, reducing everything that’s not us into an inconsequential blur. We are laughing, we are playful. We leave her books in her locker and move out of the building, into the air, the real air, the sunshine and the trees and the less burdensome world. I am breaking the rules as I leave the school. I am breaking the rules as we get into Justin’s car. I am breaking the rules as I turn the key in the ignition.
“Where do you want to go?” I ask again. “Tell me, truly, where you’d love to go.”
I don’t initially realize how much hinges on her answer. If she says, Let’s go to the mall, I will disconnect. If she says, Take me back to your house, I will disconnect. If she says, Actually, I don’t want to miss sixth period, I will disconnect. And I should disconnect. I should not be doing this.
But she says, “I want to go to the ocean. I want you to take me to the ocean.”
And I feel myself connecting.
It takes us an hour to get there. It’s late September in Maryland. The leaves haven’t begun to change, but you can tell they’re starting to think about it. The greens are muted, faded. Color is right around the corner.
I give Rhiannon control of the radio. She’s surprised by this, but I don’t care. I’ve had enough of the loud and the obnoxious, and I sense that she’s had enough of it, too. She brings melody to the car. A song comes on that I know, and I sing along.
And if I only could, I’d make a deal with God. . . .
Now Rhiannon goes from surprised to suspicious. Justin never sings along.
“What’s gotten into you?” she asks.
“Music,” I tell her.
She looks at me for a long time. Then smiles.
“In that case,” she says, flipping the dial to find the next song.
Soon we are singing at the top of our lungs. A pop song that’s as substantial as a balloon, but lifts us in the same way when we sing it.
It’s as if time itself relaxes around us. She stops thinking about how unusual it is. She lets herself be a part of it.
I want to give her a good day. Just one good day. I have wandered for so long without any sense of purpose, and now this ephemeral purpose has been given to me—it feels like it has been given to me. I only have a day to give—so why can’t it be a good one? Why can’t it be a shared one? Why can’t I take the music of the moment and see how long it can last? The rules are erasable. I can take this. I can give this.
When the song is over, she rolls down her window and trails her hand in the air, introducing a new music into the car. I roll down all the other windows and drive faster, so the wind takes over, blows our hair all around, makes it seem like the car has disappeared and we are the velocity, we are the speed. Then another good song comes on and I enclose us again, this time taking her hand. I drive like that for miles, and ask her questions. Like how her parents are doing. What it’s like now that her sister’s off at college. If she thinks school is different at all this year.
It’s hard for her. Every single answer starts with the phrase I don’t know. But most of the time she does know, if I give her the time and the space in which to answer. Her mother means well; her father less so. Her sister isn’t calling home, but Rhiannon can understand that. School is school—she wants it to be over, but she’s afraid of it being over, because then she’ll have to figure out what comes next.
She asks me what I think, and I tell her, “Honestly, I’m just trying to live day to day.”
It isn’t enough, but it’s something. We watch the trees, the sky, the signs, the road. We sense each other. The world, right now, is only us. We continue to sing along. And we sing with the same abandon, not worrying too much if our voices hit the right notes or the right words. We look at each other while we’re singing; these aren’t two solos, this is a duet that isn’t taking itself at all seriously. It is its own form of conversation— you can learn a lot about people from the stories they tell, but you can also know them from the way they sing along, whether they like the windows up or down, if they live by the map or by the world, if they feel the pull of the ocean.
She tells me where to drive. Off the highway. The empty back roads. This isn’t summer; this isn’t a weekend. It’s the middle of a Monday, and nobody but us is going to the beach.
“I should be in English class,” Rhiannon says.
“I should be in bio,” I say, accessing Justin’s schedule.
We keep going. When I first saw her, she seemed to be balancing on edges and points. Now the ground is more even, welcoming.
I know this is dangerous. Justin is not good to her. I recognize that. If I access the bad memories, I see tears, fights, and remnants of passable togetherness. She is always there for him, and he must like that. His friends like her, and he must like that, too. But that’s not the same as love. She has been hanging on to the hope of him for so long that she doesn’t realize there isn’t anything left to hope for. They don’t have silences together; they have noise. Mostly his. If I tried, I could go deep into their arguments. I could track down whatever shards he’s collected from all the times he’s destroyed her. If I were really Justin, I would find something wrong with her. Right now. Tell her. Yell. Bring her down. Put her in her place.
But I can’t. I’m not Justin. Even if she doesn’t know it.
“Let’s just enjoy ourselves,” I say. “Okay,” she replies. “I like that. I spend so much time thinking about running away—it’s nice to actually do it. For a day. It’s good to be on the other side of the window. I don’t do this enough.”
There are so many things inside of her that I want to know. And at the same time, with every word we speak, I feel there may be something inside of her that I already know. When I get there, we will recognize each other. We will have that.
I park the car and we head to the ocean. We take off our shoes and leave them under our seats. When we get to the sand, I lean over to roll up my jeans. While I do, Rhiannon runs ahead. When I look back up, she is spinning around the beach, kicking up sand, calling my name. Everything, at that moment, is lightness. She is so joyful, I can’t help but stop for a second and watch. Witness. Tell myself to remember.
“C’mon!” she cries. “Get over here!”
I’m not who you think I am, I want to tell her. But there’s no way. Of course there’s no way.
We have the beach to ourselves, the ocean to ourselves. I have her to myself. She has me to herself.
There is a part of childhood that is childish, and a part that is sacred. Suddenly we are touching the sacred part—running to the shoreline, feeling the first cold burst of water on our ankles, reaching into the tide to catch at shells before they ebb away from our fingers. We have returned to a world that is capable of glistening, and we are wading deeper within it. We stretch our arms wide, as if we are embracing the wind. She splashes me mischievously and I mount a counterattack. Our pants, our shirts get wet, but we don’t care.
She asks me to help her build a sand castle, and as I do, she tells me about how she and her sister would never work on sand castles together—it was always a competition, with her sister going for the highest possible mountains while Rhiannon paid attention to detail, wanting each castle to be the dollhouse she was never allowed to have. I see echoes of this detail now as she makes turrets bloom from her cupped hands. I myself have no memories of sand castles, but there must be some sense memory attached, because I feel I know how to do this, how to shape this.
When we are done, we walk back down to the water to wash off our hands. I look back and see the way our footsteps intermingle to form a single path.
“What is it?” she asks, seeing me glance backward, seeing something in my expression.
How can I explain this? The only way I know is to say “Thank you.”
She looks at me as if she’s never heard the phrase before.
“For what?” she asks.
“For this,” I say. “For all of it.”
This escape. The water. The waves. Her. It feels like we’ve
stepped outside of time. Even though there is no such place.
There’s still a part of her that’s waiting for the twist, the moment when all of this pleasure will jackknife into pain.
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “It’s okay to be happy.”
The tears come to her eyes. I take her in my arms. It’s the wrong thing to do. But it’s the right thing to do. I have to listen to my own words. Happiness is so rarely a part of my vocabulary, because for me it’s so fleeting.
“I’m happy,” she says. “Really, I am.”
Justin would be laughing at her. Justin would be pushing her down into the sand, to do whatever he wanted to do. Justin would never have come here.
I am tired of not feeling. I am tired of not connecting. I want to be here with her. I want to be the one who lives up to her hopes, if only for the time I’m given.
The ocean makes its music; the wind does its dance. We hold on. At first we hold on to one another, but then it starts to feel like we are holding on to something even bigger than that. Greater.
“What’s happening?” Rhiannon asks.
“Shhh,” I say. “Don’t question it.”
She kisses me. I have not kissed anyone in years. I have not allowed myself to kiss anyone for years. Her lips are soft as flower petals, but with an intensity behind them. I take it slow, let each moment pour into the next. Feel her skin, her breath. Taste the condensation of our contact, linger in the heat of it. Her eyes are closed and mine are open. I want to remember this as more than a single sensation. I want to remember this whole.
We do nothing more than kiss. We do nothing less than kiss. At times, she moves to take it further, but I don’t need that. I trace her shoulders as she traces my back. I kiss her neck. She kisses beneath my ear. The times we stop, we smile at each other. Giddy disbelief, giddy belief. She should be in English class. I should be in bio. We weren’t supposed to come anywhere near the ocean today. We have defied the day as it was set out for us.
We walk hand in hand down the beach as the sun dips in the sky. I am not thinking about the past. I am not thinking about the future. I am full of such gratitude for the sun, the water, the way my feet sink into the sand, the way my hand feels holding hers.
“We should do this every Monday,” she says. “And Tuesday. And Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday.”
“We’d only get tired of it,” I tell her. “It’s best to have it just once.”
“Never again?” She doesn’t like the sound of that.
“Well, never say never.”
“I’d never say never,” she tells me. There are a few more people on the beach now, mostly older men and women taking an afternoon walk. They nod to us as we pass, and sometimes they say hello. We nod back, return their hellos. Nobody questions why we’re here. Nobody questions anything. We’re just a part of the moment, like everything else.
The sun falls farther. The temperature drops alongside it. Rhiannon shivers, so I stop holding her hand and put my arm around her. She suggests we go back to the car and get the “make-out blanket” from the trunk. We find it there, buried under empty beer bottles, twisted jumper cables, and other guy crap. I wonder how often Rhiannon and Justin have used the make-out blanket for that purpose, but I don’t try to access the memories. Instead, I bring the blanket back out onto the beach and put it down for both of us. I lie down and face the sky, and Rhiannon lies down next to me and does the same. We stare at the clouds, breathing distance from one another, taking it all in.
“This has to be one of the best days ever,” Rhiannon says.
Without turning my head, I find her hand with my hand.
“Tell me about some of the other days like this,” I ask.
“I don’t know. . . .”
“Just one. The first one that comes to mind.”
Rhiannon thinks about it for a second. Then she shakes her head. “It’s stupid.”
She turns to me and moves her hand to my chest. Makes lazy circles there. “For some reason, the first thing that comes to mind is this mother-daughter fashion show. Do you promise you won’t laugh?”
She studies me. Makes sure I’m sincere. Continues.
“It was in fourth grade or something. Renwick’s was doing a fundraiser for hurricane victims, and they asked for volunteers from our class. I didn’t ask my mother or anything—I just signed up. And when I brought the information home—well, you know how my mom is. She was terrified. It’s hard enough to get her out to the supermarket. But a fashion show? In front of strangers? I might as well have asked her to pose for Playboy. God, now there’s a scary thought.”
Her hand is now resting on my chest. She’s looking off to the sky.
“But here’s the thing: she didn’t say no. I guess it’s only now that I realize what I put her through. She didn’t make me go to the teacher and take it back. No, when the day came, we drove over to Renwick’s and went where they told us to go. I had thought they would put us in matching outfits, but it wasn’t like that. Instead, they basically told us we could wear whatever we wanted from the store. So there we were, trying all these things on. I went for the gowns, of course—I was so much more of a girl then. I ended up with this light blue dress—ruffles all over the place. I thought it was so sophisticated.”
“I’m sure it was classy,” I say.
She hits me. “Shut up. Let me tell my story.”
I hold her hand on my chest. Lean over and kiss her quickly. “Go ahead,” I say. I am loving this. I never have people tell me their stories. I usually have to figure them out myself. Because I know that if people tell me stories, they will expect them to be remembered. And I cannot guarantee that. There is no way to know if the stories stay after I’m gone. And how devastating would it be to confide in someone and have the confidence disappear? I don’t want to be responsible for that.
But with Rhiannon I can’t resist.
She continues. “So I had my wannabe prom dress. And then it was Mom’s turn. She surprised me, because she went for the dresses, too. I’d never really seen her all dressed up before. And I think that was the most amazing thing to me: It wasn’t me who was Cinderella. It was her.
“After we picked out our clothes, they put makeup on us and everything. I thought Mom was going to flip, but she was actually enjoying it. They didn’t really do much with her—just a little more color. And that was all it took. She was pretty. I know it’s hard to believe, knowing her now. But that day, she was like a movie star. All the other moms were complimenting her. And when it was time for the actual show, we paraded out there and people applauded. Mom and I were both smiling, and it was real, you know?
“We didn’t get to keep the dresses or anything. But I remember on the ride home, Mom kept saying how great I was. When we got back to our house, Dad looked at us like we were aliens, but the cool thing is, he decided to play along. Instead of getting all weird, he kept calling us his supermodels, and asked us to do the show for him in our living room, which we did. We were laughing so much. And that was it. The day ended. I’m not sure Mom’s worn makeup since. And it’s not like I turned out to be a supermodel. But that day reminds me of this one. Because it was a break from everything, wasn’t it?”
“It sounds like it,” I tell her.
“I can’t believe I just told you that.”
“Because. I don’t know. It just sounds so silly.”
“No, it sounds like a good day.”
“How about you?” she asks.
“I was never in a mother-daughter fashion show,” I joke. Even though, as a matter of fact, I’ve been in a few.
She hits me lightly on the shoulder. “No. Tell me about another day like this one.”
I access Justin and find out he moved to town when he was twelve. So anything before that is fair game, because Rhiannon won’t have been there. I could try to find one of Justin’s memories to share, but I don’t want to do that. I want to give Rhiannon something of my own.
“There was this one day when I was eleven.” I try to remember the name of the boy whose body I was in, but it’s lost to me. “I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends. I mean, the brutal, tackle kind of hide-and-seek. We were in the woods, and for some reason I decided that what I had to do was climb a tree. I don’t think I’d ever climbed a tree before. But I found one with some low branches and just started moving. Up and up. It was as natural as walking. In my memory, that tree was hundreds of feet tall. Thousands. At some point, I crossed the tree line. I was still climbing, but there weren’t any other trees around. I was all by myself, clinging to the trunk of this tree, a long way from the ground.”
I can see shimmers of it now. The height. The town below me.
“It was magical,” I say. “There’s no other word to describe it. I could hear my friends yelling as they were caught, as the game played out. But I was in a completely different place. I was seeing the world from above, which is an extraordinary thing when it happens for the first time. I’d never flown in a plane. I’m not even sure I’d been in a tall building. So there I was, hovering above everything I knew. I had made it somewhere special, and I’d gotten there all on my own. Nobody had given it to me. Nobody had told me to do it. I’d climbed and climbed and climbed, and this was my reward. To watch over the world, and to be alone with myself. That, I found, was what I needed.”
Rhiannon leans into me. “That’s amazing,” she whispers.
“Yeah, it was.”
“And it was in Minnesota?”
In truth, it was in North Carolina. But I access Justin and find that, yes, for him it would’ve been Minnesota. So I nod.
“You want to know another day like this one?” Rhiannon asks, curling closer.
I adjust my arm, make us both comfortable.
“Our second date.”
But this is only our first, I think. Ridiculously.
“Really?” I ask.
“Remember?” I check to see if Justin remembers their second date. He doesn’t. “Dack’s party?” she prompts.
“Yeah . . . ,” I hedge.
“I don’t know—maybe it doesn’t count as a date. But it was the second time we
hooked up. And, I don’t know, you were just so . . . sweet about it. Don’t get mad, alright?”
I wonder where this is going.
“I promise, nothing could make me mad right now,” I tell her. I even cross my heart to prove it.
She smiles. “Okay. Well, lately—it’s like you’re always in a rush. Like, we have sex but we’re not really . . . intimate. And I don’t mind. I mean, it’s fun. But every now and then, it’s good to have it be like this. And at Dack’s party—it was like this. Like you had all the time in the world, and you wanted us to have it together. I loved that. It was back when you were really looking at me. It was like—well, it was like you’d climbed up that tree and found me there at the top. And we had that together. Even though we were in someone’s backyard. At one point—do you remember?—you made me move over a little so I’d be in the moonlight. ‘It makes your skin glow,’ you said. And I felt like that. Glowing. Because you were watching me, along with the moon.”
Does she realize that right now she’s lit by the warm orange spreading from the horizon, as not-quite-day becomes not-quite-night? I lean over and become that shadow. I kiss her once, then we drift into each other, close our eyes, drift into sleep. And as we drift into sleep, I feel something I’ve never felt before. A closeness that isn’t merely physical. A connection that defies the fact that we’ve only just met. A sensation that can only come from the most euphoric of feelings: belonging.
What is it about the moment you fall in love? How can such a small measure of time contain such enormity? I suddenly realize why people believe in déjà vu, why people believe they’ve lived past lives, because there is no way the years I’ve spent on this earth could possibly encapsulate what I’m feeling. The moment you fall in love feels like it has centuries behind it, generations—all of them rearranging themselves so that this precise, remarkable intersection could happen. In your heart, in your bones, no matter how silly you know it is, you feel that everything has been leading to this, all the secret arrows were pointing here, the universe and time itself crafted this long ago, and you are just now realizing it, you are just now arriving at the place you were always meant to be.
We wake an hour later to the sound of her phone.
I keep my eyes closed. Hear her groan. Hear her tell her mother she’ll be home soon.
The water has gone deep black and the sky has gone ink blue. The chill in the air presses harder against us as we pick up the blanket, provide a new set of footprints.
She navigates, I drive. She talks, I listen. We sing some more. Then she leans into my shoulder and I let her stay there and sleep for a little longer, dream for a little longer.
I am trying not to think of what will happen next.
I am trying not to think of endings.
I never get to see people while they’re asleep. Not like this. She is the opposite of when I first met her. Her vulnerability is open, but she’s safe within it. I watch the rise and fall of her, the stir and rest of her. I only wake her when I need her to tell me where to go.
The last ten minutes, she talks about what we’re going to do tomorrow. I find it hard to respond.
“Even if we can’t do this, I’ll see you at lunch?” she asks.
“And maybe we can do something after school?”
“I think so. I mean, I’m not sure what else is going on. My mind isn’t really there right now.” This makes sense to her. “Fair enough. Tomorrow is tomorrow. Let’s end today on a nice note.”
Once we get to town, I can access the directions to her house without having to ask her. But I want to get lost anyway. To prolong this. To escape this.
“Here we are,” Rhiannon says as we approach her driveway.
I pull the car to a stop. I unlock the doors. She leans over and kisses me. My senses are alive with the taste of her, the smell of her, the feel of her, the sound of her breathing, the sight of her as she pulls her body away from mine.
“That’s the nice note,” she says. And before I can say anything else, she’s out the door and gone.
I don’t get a chance to say goodbye.
I guess, correctly, that Justin’s parents are used to him being out of touch and missing dinner. They try to yell at him, but you can tell that everyone’s going through the motions, and when Justin storms off to his room, it’s just the latest rerun of an old show.
I should be doing Justin’s homework—I’m always pretty conscientious about that kind of thing, if I’m able to do it—but my mind keeps drifting to Rhiannon. Imagining her at home. Imagining her floating from the grace of the day. Imagining her believing that things are different, that Justin has somehow changed.
I shouldn’t have done it. I know I shouldn’t have done it. Even if it felt like the universe was telling me to do it.
I agonize over it for hours. I can’t take it back. I can’t make it go away.
I fell in love once, or at least until today I thought I had. His name was Brennan, and it felt so real, even if it was mostly words. Intense, heartfelt words. I stupidly let myself think of a possible future with him. But there was no future. I tried to navigate it, but I couldn’t.
That was easy compared to this. It’s one thing to fall in love. It’s another to feel someone else falling in love with you, and to feel a responsibility toward that love.
There is no way for me to stay in this body. If I don’t go to sleep, the shift will happen anyway. I used to think that if I stayed up all night, I’d get to remain where I was. But instead, I was ripped from the body I was in. And the ripping felt exactly like what you would imagine being ripped from a body would feel like, with every single nerve experiencing the pain of the break, and then the pain of being fused into someone new. From then on, I went to sleep every night. There was no use fighting it.
I realize I have to call her. Her number’s right there in his phone. I can’t let her think tomorrow is going to be like today.
“Hey!” she answers.
“Hey,” I say.
“Thank you again for today.”
“Yeah.” I don’t want to do this.
I don’t want to ruin it. But I have to, don’t I?
I continue, “But about today?”
“Are you going to tell me that we can’t cut class every day? That’s not like you.”
Not like me.
“Yeah,” I say, “but, you know, I don’t want you to think every day is going to be like today. Because they’re not going to be, alright? They can’t be.”
There’s a silence. She knows something’s wrong.
“I know that,” she says carefully. “But maybe things can still be better. I know they can be.”
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “That’s all I wanted to say. I don’t know. Today was something, but it’s not, like, everything.”
“I know that.”
There’s always a chance that, in some way, I will have brushed off on Justin. There’s always a chance that his life will in fact change—that he will change. But I have no way of knowing. It’s rare that I get to see a body after I’ve left it. And even then, it’s usually months or years later. If I recognize it at all.
I want Justin to be better to her. But I can’t have her expecting it.
“That’s all,” I tell her. It feels like a Justin thing to say.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, you will.”
“Thanks again for today. No matter what trouble we get into tomorrow for it, it was worth it.”
“I love you,” she says.
And I want to say it. I want to say I love you, too. Right now, right at this moment, every part of me would mean it. But that will only last for a couple more hours.
“Sleep well,” I tell her. Then I hang up.
There’s a notebook on his desk.
Remember that you love Rhiannon, I write in his handwriting.
I doubt he’ll remember writing it.
I go onto his computer. I open up my own email account, then type out her name, her phone number, her email address, as well as Justin’s email and password. I write about the day. And I send it to myself.
As soon as I’m through, I clear Justin’s history.
This is hard for me.
I have gotten so used to what I am, and how my life works.
I never want to stay. I’m always ready to leave.
But not tonight.
Tonight I’m haunted by the fact that tomorrow he’ll be here and I won’t be.
I want to stay.
I pray to stay.
I close my eyes and wish to stay.
ANOTHER DAY by David Levithan
I watch his car as it pulls into the parking lot. I watch him get out of it. I am in the corner of his eye, moving toward its center—but he isn’t looking for me. He’s heading into school without noticing I’m right here. I could call out for him, but he doesn’t like that. He says it’s something needy girls do, always calling out to their boyfriends.
It hurts that I can be so full of him while he’s so empty of me.
I wonder if last night is the reason he isn’t looking for me. I wonder if our fight is still happening. Like most of our fights, it’s about something stupid, with other non-stupid things right underneath. All I did was ask him if he wanted to go to Steve’s party on Saturday. That was it. And he asked me why, on Sunday night, I was already asking him about Saturday. He said I’m always doing this, trying to pin him down, as if he won’t want to be with me if I don’t ask him about it months ahead of time. I told him it wasn’t my fault he’s always afraid of plans, afraid of figuring out what’s next.
Mistake. Calling him afraid was a big mistake. That’s probably the only word he heard.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
“I was talking about a party at Steve’s house on Saturday,” I told him, my voice way too upset for either of us. “That’s all.”
But that’s not all. Justin loves me and hates me as much as I love him and hate him. I know that. We each have our triggers, and we should never reach in to pull them. But sometimes we can’t help ourselves. We know each other too well, but never well enough.
I am in love with someone who’s afraid of the future. And, like a fool, I keep bringing it up.
I follow him. Of course I do. Only a needy girl would be mad at her boyfriend because he didn’t notice her in a parking lot.
As I’m walking to his locker, I wonder which Justin I’ll find there. It probably won’t be Sweet Justin, because it’s rare for Sweet Justin to show up at school. And hopefully it won’t be Angry Justin, because I haven’t done anything that wrong, I don’t think. I’m hoping for Chill Justin, because I like Chill Justin. When he’s around, we can all calm down.
I stand there as he takes his books out of his locker. I look at the back of his neck because I am in love with the back of his neck. There is something so physical about it, something that makes me want to lean over and kiss it.
Finally, he looks at me. I can’t read his expression, not right away. It’s like he’s trying to figure me out at the same time I’m trying to figure him out. I think maybe this is a good sign, because maybe it means he’s worried about me. Or it’s a bad sign, because he doesn’t understand why I’m here.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say back.
There’s something really intense about the way he’s looking at me. I’m sure he’s finding something wrong. There’s always something wrong for him to find.
But he doesn’t say anything. Which is weird. Then, even weirder, he asks me, “Are you okay?”
I must look really pathetic if he’s asking me that.
“Sure,” I tell him. Because I don’t know what the answer is supposed to be. I am not okay—that’s actually the answer. But it’s not the right answer to say to him. I know that much.
If this is some kind of trap, I don’t appreciate it. If this is payback for what I said last night, I want it over with.
“Are you mad at me?” I ask, not sure I want to know the answer.
And he goes, “No. I’m not mad at you at all.”
When we have problems, I’m usually the one who sees them. I do the worrying for both of us. I just can’t tell him about it too often, because then it’s almost like I’m bragging that I understand what’s going on while he doesn’t.
Uncertainty. Do I ask about last night? Or do I pretend it never happened—that it never happens?
“Do you still want to get lunch today?” I ask. It’s only after I ask that I realize I’m trying to make plans again.
Maybe I am a needy girl, after all.
“Absolutely,” Justin says. “Lunch would be great.”
Bullshit. He’s playing with me. He has to be.
“No big deal,” he adds.
I look at him, and it seems genuine. Maybe I’m wrong to assume the worst. And maybe I’ve managed to make him feel stupid by being so surprised.
I take his hand and hold it. If he’s willing to step back from last night, I am, too. This is what we do. When the stupid fights are over, we’re good.
“I’m glad you’re not mad at me,” I tell him. “I just want everything to be okay.”
He knows I love him. I know he loves me. That is never the question. The question is always how we’ll deal with it.
Time. The bell rings. I have to remind myself that school is not a thing that exists solely to give us a place to be together.
“I’ll see you later,” he says.
I hold on to that. It’s the only thing that will get me through the empty space that follows.
I was watching one of my shows, and one of the housewives was like, “He’s a fuckup, but he’s my fuckup,” and I thought, Oh, shit, I really shouldn’t be relating to this, but I am, and so what? That has to be what love is—seeing what a mess he is and loving him anyway, because you know you’re a mess, too, maybe even worse.
We weren’t an hour into our first date before Justin was setting off the alarms.
“I’m warning you—I’m trouble,” he said over dinner at TGI Fridays. “Total trouble.”
“And do you warn all the other girls?” I replied, flirting.
But what I got back wasn’t flirtation. It was real.
“No,” he said. “I don’t.”
This was his way of letting me know that I was someone he cared about. Even at the very beginning.
He hadn’t meant to tell me. But there it was. And even though he’s forgotten a lot of other details about that first date, he’s never forgotten what he said.
I warned you! he’ll yell at me on nights when it’s really bad, really hard. You can’t say I didn’t warn you!
Sometimes this only makes me hold him tighter.
Sometimes I’ve already let go, feeling awful that there’s nothing I can do.
The only time our paths intersect in the morning is between first and second periods, so I look for him then. We only have a minute to share, sometimes less, but I’m always thankful. It’s like I’m taking attendance. Love? Here! Even if we’re tired (which is pretty much always) and even if we don’t have much to say, I know he won’t just pass me by.
Today I smile, because, all things considered, the morning went pretty well. And he smiles back at me.
Good signs. I am always looking for good signs.
I head to Justin’s class as soon as fourth period is over, but he hasn’t waited for me. So I go to the cafeteria, to where we usually sit. He’s not there, either. I ask Rebecca if she’s seen him. She says she hasn’t, and doesn’t seem too surprised that I’m looking. I decide to ignore that. I check my locker and he’s not there. I’m starting to think he’s forgotten, or was playing with me all along. I decide to check his locker, even though it’s about as far from the cafeteria as you can get. He never stops there before lunch. But I guess today he has, because there he is.
I’m happy to see him, but also exhausted. It’s just so much work. He looks worse than I feel, staring into his locker like there’s a window in there. In some people, this would mean daydreams. But Justin doesn’t daydream. When he’s gone, he’s really gone.
Now he’s back. Right when I get to him.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say back.
I’m hungry, but not that hungry. The most important thing is for us to be in the same place. I can do that anywhere.
He’s putting all of his books in his locker now, as if he’s done with the day. I hope nothing’s wrong. I hope he’s not giving up. If I’m going to be stuck here, I want him stuck here, too.
He stands up and puts his hand on my arm. Gentle. Way too gentle. It’s something I’d do to him, not something he’d do to me. I like it, but I also don’t like it.
“Let’s go somewhere,” he says. “Where do you want to go?”
Again, I think there has to be a right answer to this question, and that if I get it wrong, I will ruin everything. He wants something from me, but I’m not sure what.
“I don’t know,” I tell him.
He takes his hand off my arm and I think, okay, wrong answer. But then he takes my hand.
“Come on,” he says. There’s an electricity in his eyes. Power. Light.
He closes the locker and pulls me forward. I don’t understand. We’re walking hand in hand through the almost-empty halls. We never do this. He gets this grin on his face and we go faster. It’s like we’re little kids at recess. Running, actually running down the halls. People look at us like we’re insane. It’s so ridiculous. He swings us by my locker and tells me to leave my books here, too. I don’t understand, but I go along with it—he’s in a great mood, and I don’t want to do anything that will break it.
Once my locker’s closed, we keep going. Right out the door. Simple as that. Escape. We’re always talking about how we want to leave, and this time we’re doing it. I figure he’ll take me out for pizza or something. Maybe be late to fifth period. We get to his car and I don’t even want to ask him what we’re doing. I just want to let him do it.
He turns and asks, “Where do you want to go? Tell me, truly, where you’d love to go.”
Strange. He’s asking me as if I’m the one who knows the right answer.
I really hope this isn’t a trick. I really hope I won’t regret this.
I say the first thing that comes to my mind.
“I want to go to the ocean. I want you to take me to the ocean.”
I figure he’ll laugh and say what he really meant was that we should go to his house while his parents are gone and spend the afternoon having sex and watching TV. Or that he’s trying to prove a point about not making plans, to prove that I like being spontaneous better. Or he’ll tell me to go have fun at the ocean while he gets lunch. All of these are possibilities, and they all play at the same time in my head.
The only thing I’m not expecting is for him to think it’s a good idea.
“Okay,” he says, pulling out of the parking lot. I still assume he’s joking, but then he’s asking me the best way to get there. I tell him which highways we should take—there’s a beach my family used to go to a lot in the summer, and if we’re going to the ocean, we might as well go there.
As he steers, I can tell he’s enjoying himself. It should put me at ease, but it’s making me nervous. It would be just like Justin to take me somewhere really special in order to dump me. Make a big production of it. Maybe leave me stranded there. I don’t actually think this is going to happen—but it’s possible. As a way of proving to me that he’s able to make plans. As a way of showing he’s not as afraid of the future as I said he was.
You’re being crazy, Rhiannon, I tell myself. It’s something he says to me all the time. A lot of the time, he’s right.
Just enjoy it, I think. Because we’re not in school. We’re together.
He turns on the radio and tells me to take over. What? My car, my radio—how many times have I heard him say that? But it seems like his offer is real, so I slip from station to station, trying to find something he’ll be into. When I pause too long on a song I like, he says, “Why not that one?” And I’m thinking, Because you hate it. But I don’t say that out loud. I let the song play. I wait for him to make a joke about it, say the singer sounds like she’s having her period.
Instead, he starts to sing along.
Disbelief. Justin never sings along. He will yell at the radio. He will talk back to whatever the talk radio people are saying. Every now and then he might beat along on his steering wheel. But he does not sing.
I wonder if he’s on drugs. But I’ve seen him on drugs before, and it’s never been like this.
“What’s gotten into you?” I ask.
“Music,” he says.
He’s not joking. He’s not laughing at me somewhere inside. I am looking at him and I can see that. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not that.
I decide to see how far I can push it. Because that’s what a needy girl does.
“In that case . . . ,” I say. I flip stations until I find the least-Justin song possible.
And there it is. Kelly Clarkson. Singing how what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I turn it up. In my head, I dare him to sing along.
We are belting it out. I have no idea how he knows the words. But I don’t question it. I am singing with everything I’ve got, never knowing I could love this song as much as I do right now, because it is making everything okay—it is making us okay. I refuse to think about anything other than that. I want us to stay inside the song. Because this is something we’ve never done before and it feels great.
When it’s done, I roll down my window—I want to feel the wind in my hair. Without a word, Justin rolls down all the other windows, and it’s like we’re in a wind tunnel, like this is a ride in an amusement park, when really it’s just a car driving down the highway. He looks so happy. It makes me realize how rare it is for me to see him happy, the kind of happy where there isn’t anything else on his mind besides the happiness. He’s usually so afraid to show it, as if it might be stolen away at any moment.
He takes my hand and starts to ask me questions. Personal questions.
He starts with, “How are your parents doing?”
“Um . . . I don’t know,” I say. He’s never really cared about my parents before. I know he wants them to like him, but because he’s not sure they will, he pretends it doesn’t matter. “I mean, you know. Mom is trying to hold it all together without actually doing anything. My dad has his moments, but he’s not exactly the most fun person to be around. The older he gets, the less he seems to give a damn about anything.”
“And what’s it like with Liza at college?”
When he asks this question, it’s as if he’s proud that he’s remembered my sister’s name. That sounds more like Justin.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “You know we were more like sisters living under a truce than best friends. I don’t know if I miss her that much, although it was easier having her around, because then there were two of us, you know? She never calls home. Even when my mom calls her, she doesn’t call back. I don’t blame her for that—I’m sure she has better things to do. And really, I always knew that once she left, she’d be gone. So I’m not shocked or anything.”
I realize as I’m talking that I’m getting close to the nerve, talking about what happens when high school is over. But Justin doesn’t seem to be taking it personally. Instead, he asks me if I think school is much different this year than last year. Which is a weird question. Something my grandmother would ask. Not my boyfriend.
I tread carefully.
“I don’t know. School sucks. That’s not different. But, you know—while I really want it to be over, I’m also worried about everything that’s going to come after. Not that I have it planned out. I don’t. I know you think that I have all of these plans—but if you actually look at the things I’ve done to prepare myself for life after high school, all you’ll see is a huge blank. I’m just as unprepared as anyone else.”
Shut up, shut up, shut up, I’m telling myself. Why are you bringing this up?
But maybe I have a reason. Maybe I’m bringing it up to see what he’ll do. He tests me all the time, but I’m not exactly innocent in that department, either.
“What do you think?” I ask him.
And he says, “Honestly, I’m just trying to live day to day.”
I know. But I appreciate it more when it’s said like this, in a voice that acknowledges we’re on the same side. I wait for him to say more, to edge back into last night’s fight. But he lets it go. I am grateful.
It’s been over a year, and there’ve been at least a hundred times when I’ve told myself that this was it—this was the new start. Sometimes I was right. But not as much as I wanted to be.
I will not let myself think that things are suddenly better.
I will not let myself think that we’ve somehow escaped the us we always end up being. But at the same time, I will not deny what’s happening. I will not deny this happiness. Because if happiness feels real, it almost doesn’t matter if it’s real or not.
Instead of plugging the destination into his phone, he’s asking me to keep giving him directions. I screw up and tell him to get off the highway one exit too soon, but when I realize this, he doesn’t freak out at all—he just gets back on the highway and goes one more exit. Now I’m no longer wondering if he’s on drugs—I’m wondering if he’s on medication. If so, it’s kicking in pretty quickly.
I do not say a word. I don’t want to jinx it.
“I should be in English class,” I say as we make the last turn before the beach.
“I should be in bio,” Justin says back.
But this is more important. I can make up my homework, but I can’t make up my life.
“Let’s just enjoy ourselves,” he says.
“Okay,” I tell him. “I like that. I spend so much time thinking about running away—it’s nice to actually do it. For a day. It’s good to be on the other side of the window. I don’t do this enough.”
Maybe this is what we’ve needed all along. Distance from everything else, and closeness to each other.
Something is working here—I can feel it working.
Memory. This is the beach my family would come to, on days when the house was too hot or my parents were sick of staying in the same place. When we came here, we’d be surrounded by other families. I liked to imagine that each of our blankets was a house, and that a certain number of blankets made a town. I’m sure there were a few kids I saw all the time, whose parents took them here, too, but I can’t remember any of them now. I can only remember my own family—my mother always under an umbrella, either not wanting to burn or not wanting to be seen; my sister taking out a book and staying inside it the whole time; my father talking to the other fathers about sports or stocks. When it got too hot, he would race me down into the water and ask me what kind of fish I wanted to be. I knew that the right answer was flying fish, because if I told him that, he would gather me in his arms and throw me into the air.
I don’t know why I’ve never brought Justin here before. Last summer we stayed indoors, waiting for his parents to leave for work so we could have sex in every room of the house, including some of the closets. Then, when it was done, we’d watch TV or play video games. Sometimes we’d call around to see what everyone else was doing, and by the time his parents came home, we’d be off at someone’s house, drinking or watching TV or playing video games or some mix of the three. It was great, because it wasn’t school, and we were with each other. But it didn’t really get us anywhere.
I leave my shoes in the car, just like I did when I was a kid. There are the first awkward steps when I’m still in the parking lot and the pavement hurts, but then there’s the sand and everything’s fine. The beach is completely empty today, and even though I didn’t expect there to be a lot of people here, it’s still surprising, like we’ve caught the beach napping.
I can’t help myself. I run right down into it, spin around. Mine, I think. The beach is mine. The time is mine. Justin is mine. Nobody—nothing—is going to interfere with that. I call out his name, and it’s like I’m still singing along to a song.
He looks at me for a moment, and I think, Oh no, this is the part where he tells me I look like an idiot. But then he’s running down to me, grabbing hold of me, swinging me around. He’s heard the song, and now we’re dancing. We’re laughing and racing each other to the water. When we get there, we splash-war, feeling the tide against our legs. I reach down for some shells, and Justin joins me, looking for colors that won’t be the same when they’re dry, looking for sea glass and spirals. The water feels so good, and standing still feels so good, because there’s a whole ocean pulling at me and I have the strength to stay where I am.
Justin’s face is completely unguarded. His body is entirely relaxed. I never see him like this. We are playing, but it’s not the kind of playing that boyfriends and girlfriends do, where there’s strategy and scorekeeping and secret moves. No, we have scissored ourselves away from all that.
I ask him to build a sand castle with me. I tell him how Liza always had to have her own, next to mine. She would build a huge mountain with a deep moat around it, while I would make a small, detailed house with a front door and a garage. Basically, I was building the dollhouse I was never able to have, while Liza was creating the fortress she felt she needed. She would never touch my castle—she wasn’t the kind of older sister who needed to destroy the competition. But she wouldn’t let me touch hers, either. We’d leave them when we were done, for the tide to take away. Sometimes our parents would come over. To me, they’d say, How pretty! To Liza, it would be, How tall!
I want Justin to work on a sand castle with me. I want us to experience what it’s like to build something together. We don’t have any shovels or buckets. Everything has to be done with our hands. He takes the phrase sand castle literally—starting with the square foundation, creating a drawbridge with his finger. I work on the turrets and the towers—balconies are precarious, but spires are possible. At random moments, he compliments me—little words like nice and neat and sweet—and I feel like the beach is somehow unlocking this vocabulary from the dungeon where he’s kept it all these months. I always felt—maybe hoped—that the words were in there somewhere. And now I know they are.
It isn’t very warm out, but I can feel the sun on my cheeks and my neck. We could gather more shells and begin to decorate, but I am starting to tire of the building, and putting our focus there. When the last tower is complete, I suggest we wander for a little while.
“Are you pleased with our creation?” he asks.
And I say, “Very.”
We head to the water to wash off our hands. Justin stares back at the beach, back at our castle, and seems lost for a moment. Lost, but in a good place.
“What is it?” I ask.
He looks at me, eyes so kind, and says, “Thank you.”
I am sure he has said these two words to me before, but never like this, never in a way that would make me want to remember them.
“For what?” I ask. What I mean is: Why now? Why finally?
“For this,” he says. “For all of it.”
I want so much to trust it. I want so much to think we’ve finally shifted to the place I always thought we could get to. But it’s too simple. It feels too simple.
“It’s okay,” he tells me. “It’s okay to be happy.”
I have wanted this for so long. This is not how I pictured it, but nothing ever is. I am overwhelmed by how much I love him. I don’t hate him at all. There’s not a single part of me that hates him. There is only love. And it isn’t terrifying. It is the opposite of terrifying.
I am crying because I’m happy and I’m crying because I don’t think I ever realized how much I was expecting to be unhappy. I am crying because, for the first time in a long time, life makes sense.
He sees me crying and doesn’t make fun of it. He doesn’t get defensive, asking what he did this time. He doesn’t tell me he warned me. He doesn’t tell me to stop. No, he wraps his arms around me and holds me and takes these things that are only words and makes them into something more than words. Comfort. He gives me something I can actually feel—his presence, his hold.
“I’m happy,” I say, afraid he thinks I’m crying for a reason besides that. “Really, I am.”
The wind, the beach, the sun—everything else wraps around us, but our embrace is the one that matters. I am holding on to him now as much as he is holding on to me. We have reached that perfect balance, where each of us is strong and each of us is weak, each taking, each giving.
“What’s happening?” I ask.
“Shhh,” he says. “Don’t question it.”
I don’t feel any questions—only answers. No fear, only fullness. I kiss him and continue our perfect balance there, let our separate breaths become one breath. I close my eyes and feel the familiar press of his lips, the familiar taste of his mouth. But something is different now. We are not just kissing with our whole bodies, but with something that is bigger than our bodies, that is who we are and who we will be. We are kissing from a deeper part of our selves, and we are finding a deeper part of each other. It feels like electricity hitting water, fire reaching paper, the brightest light finding our eyes. I run my hands down his back, down his front, as if I need to know that he’s really here, that this is really happening. I linger on the back of his neck. He lingers on the side of my hip. I slip below his belt, but he leads me back up, kissing my neck. I kiss beneath his ear. I kiss his smile. He traces my laugh.
Enjoying this. We are enjoying this.
I have no idea what time it is, what day it is. I have nothing but now. Nothing but here. And it is more than enough.
Eventually my hand slides down his arm and holds his hand. We stand there for a few seconds, or maybe a few minutes, hand in hand, forehead on forehead, lips gently on lips, drained entirely of longing, because everything’s been found.
Then we pull away, keeping our hands together. We begin to walk down the beach, like couples do. Time comes back, but not in a scary way.
“This is amazing,” I say. And then I cringe despite myself, because this is what Justin would usually call an obvious statement. But of course, on this day, in this place, all he does is nod in agreement. He looks at the sun, which is coming closer to the horizon. I think I can see a boat offshore, but it could just be driftwood, or a mirage.
I want every day to be like this. I don’t understand why it can’t be.
“We should do this every Monday,” I say. “And Tuesday. And Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday.”
I’m joking. But not really.
“We’d only get tired of it,” Justin says. “It’s best to have it just once.”
Once? I don’t know what he means. I don’t know how he could say that.
“Never again?” I ask. I don’t want to be wrong here. I really don’t want to be wrong.
He smiles. “Well, never say never.”
“I’d never say never,” I promise him.
Company. There are other couples on the beach now. Only
a few, all of them older than us. Nobody asks us why we aren’t in school. Nobody asks us what we’re doing here. Instead, they seem happy to see us. It makes me feel like we belong here, that we are right to be doing what we’re doing.
This is how it’s going to be, I tell myself. And then I look at Justin and think, Tell me this is how it’s going to be.
I don’t want to ask him. I don’t want to have to ask. Too often, it’s my questions that push things off course.
I don’t want this to be fragile, but I still treat it like it is.
I’m starting to get a little cold. I have to remind myself that it isn’t summer. When I shiver, Justin puts his arm around me. I suggest we go back to the car and get the make-out blanket he keeps in his trunk. So we turn around, head back to where we started. Our castle is still there, still standing, even as the ocean comes closer.
Once we have the blanket, we bring it back to the beach. Instead of wrapping it around our shoulders, we put it on the sand and press ourselves beside each other. We are lying down, staring up at the sky. Clouds push by us. Every now and then a bird appears.
“This has to be one of the best days ever,” I say.
Without turning his head, he puts his hand in mine.
“Tell me about some of the other days like this,” he asks.
“I don’t know . . . ,” I say. I can’t imagine another day like this.
“Just one. The first one that comes to mind.” I think about times when I was happy. Really happy. Balloon-floating happy. And the strangest memory comes into my mind. I have no idea why. I know I need to give him an answer, but I tell him it’s stupid. He insists I share it anyway.
I turn to him and he moves my hand to his chest, making circles there.
He is here. This is safe.
I tell him, “For some reason, the first thing that comes to mind is this mother-daughter fashion show.”
I make him promise not to laugh. He promises. And I believe him.
“It was in fourth grade or something,” I say. “Renwick’s was doing a fundraiser for hurricane victims, and they asked for volunteers from our class. I didn’t ask my mother or anything—I just signed up. And when I brought the information home—well, you know how my mom is. She was terrified. It’s enough to get her out to the supermarket. But a fashion show? In front of strangers? I might as well have asked her to pose for Playboy. God, now there’s a scary thought.”
Some girls have moms who partied all the time when they were young, who laughed and giggled and flirted and dressed in super tight clothes. I don’t have a mom like that. My mom was, I think, always the same as she is now. Except maybe this one time.
I tell Justin, “But here’s the thing: she didn’t say no. I guess it’s only now that I realize what I put her through. She didn’t make me go to the teacher and take it back. No, when the day came, we drove over to Renwick’s and went where they told us to go. I had thought they would put us in matching outfits, but it wasn’t like that. Instead, they basically told us we could wear whatever we wanted from the store. So there we were, trying all these things on. I went for the gowns, of course—I was so much more of a girl then. I ended up with this light blue dress—ruffles all over the place. I thought it was so sophisticated.”
“I’m sure it was classy,” Justin says.
I hit him playfully. “Shut up. Let me tell my story.”
He holds my hand on his chest. Before I can go on, he kisses me. I think the story might end there, but he pulls back and says, “Go ahead.”
I forget for a second where I was, because for a moment I fall out of the story and back into now. Then I remember: My mom. The fashion show.
“So I had my wannabe prom dress,” I say. “And then it was Mom’s turn. She surprised me, because she went for the dresses, too. I’d never really seen her all dressed up before. And I think that was the most amazing thing to me: It wasn’t me who was Cinderella. It was her.
“After we picked out our clothes, they put makeup on us and everything. I thought Mom was going to flip, but she was actually enjoying it. They didn’t really do much with her—just a little more color. And that was all it took. She was pretty. I know it’s hard to believe, knowing her now. But that day, she was like a movie star. All the other moms were complimenting her. And when it was time for the actual show, we paraded out there and people applauded. Mom and I were both smiling, and it was real, you know?”
Real like this is real—Justin listening next to me, the sky above, the sand underneath. It is real in such an intense way that it feels unreal, too. Like I had no idea it was possible to feel so much at once, and have it all be true.
“We didn’t get to keep the dresses or anything,” I go on. “But I remember on the ride home, Mom kept saying how great I was. When we got back to our house, Dad looked at us like we were aliens, but the cool thing is, he decided to play along. Instead of getting all weird, he kept calling us his supermodels, and asked us to do the show for him in our living room, which we did. We were laughing so much. And that was it. The day ended. I’m not sure Mom’s worn makeup since. And it’s not like I turned out to be a supermodel. But that day reminds me of this one. Because it was a break from everything, wasn’t it?”
“It sounds like it,” Justin says. And the way he looks at me—it’s like he’s finally realized how real I am, how here I am. What I’ve just said isn’t worth that. Which means I must be worth that.
“I can’t believe I just told you that,” I say. It’s like I’m giving him a chance to change his mind.
“Because. I don’t know. It just sounds so silly.”
“No,” he says, “it sounds like a good day.”
“How about you?” I ask. I know I’m pushing it. It’s one thing for him to listen. It’s another to have him actually tell me something.
“I was never in a mother-daughter fashion show,” he says.
Ha ha. So maybe he isn’t taking this seriously after all. I hit him on the shoulder and say, “No. Tell me about another day like this one.”
I can see him thinking about it. At first, I think he’s debating whether or not to tell me anything. But then I realize that, no, he’s just trying to come up with a good answer.
“There was this one day when I was eleven,” he starts. He’s not staring out to the ocean or looking anywhere else, distracted. He’s looking right into my eyes, his way of saying this story is for me. “I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends. I mean, the brutal tackle kind of hide-and-seek. We were in the woods, and for some reason I decided that what I had to do was climb a tree. I don’t think I’d ever climbed a tree before. But I found one with some low branches and just started moving. Up and up. It was as natural as walking. In my memory, that tree was hundreds of feet tall. Thousands. At some point, I crossed the tree line. I was still climbing, but there weren’t any other trees around. I was all by myself, clinging to the trunk of this tree, a long way from the ground.
“It was magical. There’s no other word to describe it. I could hear my friends yelling as they were caught, as the game played out. But I was in a completely different place. I was seeing the world from above, which is an extraordinary thing when it happens for the first time. I’d never flown in a plane. I’m not even sure I’d been in a tall building. So there I was, hovering above everything I knew. I had made it somewhere special, and I’d gotten there all on my own. Nobody had given it to me. Nobody had told me to do it. I’d climbed and climbed and climbed, and this was my reward. To watch over the world, and to be alone with myself. That, I found, was what I needed.”
I’m almost crying, imagining him there. Every now and then he’ll tell me something about when he was little, but not like this. Usually he only tells me the bad things. The hard things. Mostly as an excuse.
I lean into him. “That’s amazing.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“And it was in Minnesota?” I want to show him I remember what he tells me—his
family’s moves, how cold it was there—so he’ll feel he can tell me more.
I want to tell him more, too. I always want to tell him more, but now that I know he’s listening—really listening—it means something different.
“You want to know another day like this one?” I ask, moving even closer, like I’m building a nest of our bodies in order to catch all the memories.
He pulls me in, settles the nest. “Sure.”
“Our second date,” I tell him.
“Really?” He seems surprised.
He doesn’t. Which is fair, because it’s not like we labeled everything as a date. I mean, there were plenty of times before our first date where we were in the same place with other people, flirting. I’m talking about the second time we arrived together and left together and spent most of the time together.
“Dack’s party?” I say.
“Yeah. . . .”
Still unclear. “I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe it doesn’t count
as a date. But it was the second time we hooked up. And, I don’t know, you were just so . . . sweet about it. Don’t get mad, alright?”
I don’t want to ruin it. I am afraid I’m ruining it. Why don’t I just stop when things are good?
But then he says, “I promise, nothing could make me mad right now.” And he crosses his heart. Something I’ve never, ever seen him do before.
Smile. I’m not ruining it. I’m really not. “Okay,” I say. “Well, lately—it’s like you’re always in a rush. Like, we have sex but we’re not really . . . intimate. And I don’t mind. I mean, it’s fun. But every now and then, it’s good to have it be like this. And at Dack’s party—it was like this. Like you had all the time in the world, and you wanted us to have it together. I loved that. It was back when you were really looking at me. It was like—well, it was like you’d climbed up that tree and found me there at the top. And we had that together. Even though we were in someone’s backyard. At one point—do you remember?—you made me move over a little so I’d be in the moonlight. ‘It makes your skin glow,’ you said. And I felt like that. Glowing. Because you were watching me, along with the moon.”
I have never said this much to him. In all the time we’ve been together, I’m not sure I’ve ever let the words come out like this, without inspecting them first. I thought I knew what we were, and that was good enough for me.
What is this? I think. Because now he’s leaning over and kissing me, and it’s making everything romantic. Justin has been able to do romantic things before, sure. But he’s never made everything seem romantic before. The universe, at this moment, is romantic. And I want it. I want it so badly. I want the touch of his lips on mine. I want the way my heart is pounding. I want this nest, my body and his body. I want it because it’s that unreal kind of real.
There are so many other things we could say, but I don’t want to say any of them. Not because I’m afraid of ruining it. But because right now I have everything. I don’t need anything more.
We close our eyes. We rest in each other’s arms.
We’ve somehow made it to the better place you always want to be.
I don’t even realize I’m falling asleep. We’re just so comfortable that I guess we go there.
Then my phone is ringing, the ringtone so much shriller than the ocean. I know who it is, and even though I want to ignore it, I can’t. I open my eyes, shift away from Justin, and pick up the phone.
“Where are you?” Mom asks.
I check out the time. School’s been over for a while now.
“I just went somewhere with Justin,” I tell her.
“Well, your father’s coming home tonight, so I want us to all have dinner.”
“That’s fine. I’ll be home before that. In an hour or so.”
As soon as those words leave my mouth, the clock that had
stopped begins to tick again. I hate my mother for causing this to happen, and I hate myself for letting it.
Justin’s sitting up now, looking at me like he knows what I’ve done.
“It’s getting late,” he says. He picks up the blanket and shakes it out. Then we fold it together, drawing nearer and farther and back nearer again, until the blanket is a square. Usually we just roll it up and throw it back in the trunk.
It feels different, driving home. It’s no longer an adventure; it’s just driving home. I find myself telling him all the things he never wants to hear about—other people’s relationship drama, the way Rebecca’s really trying hard to get into a good school and leave the rest of us behind (which I fully believe she should do), the pressure I feel to do well, too, or at least good enough.
After a while, the sun has set and the headlights are on and the songs we’re choosing are quiet ones. I lean on his shoulder and close my eyes, falling asleep again. I don’t mean to do it, but I’m just so comfortable. Usually I’m leaning into him to prove something, to claim something. But now—it’s just to have him there. To rebuild that nest.
When I wake up, I see we’re getting close to my house. I wish we weren’t.
The only way for me to avoid being depressed is to create a bridge between now and the next time we’ll be like this. I don’t need to plan exactly when we’ll get there. I just need to know it’s there for us to get to.
“How many days do you think we could skip school before we’d get in trouble?” I ask. “I mean, if we’re there in the morning, do you think they’d really notice if we’re gone in the afternoon?”
“I think they’d catch us,” he says.
“Maybe once a week? Once a month? Starting tomorrow?”
I figure he’ll laugh at that, but instead he looks bothered. Not by me, but by the fact that he can’t say yes. A lot of the time I take his sadness in a bad way. Now I almost take it in a good way, a sign that the day has meant as much to him as it has for me.
“Even if we can’t do this, I’ll see you at lunch?” I ask.
“And maybe we can do something after school?”
“I think so,” he says. “I mean, I’m not sure what else is going on. My mind isn’t really there right now.”
Plans. Maybe he’s right—maybe I always try to tie him up instead of letting things happen. “Fair enough,” I say. “Tomorrow is tomorrow. Let’s end today on a nice note.”
One last song. One last turn. One last street. No matter how hard you try to keep hold of a day, it’s going to leave you.
“Here we are,” I say when we get to my house.
Let’s make it always like this, I want to say to him.
He pulls the car over. He unlocks the doors.
End it on a nice note, I think, as much to myself as to him.
It’s so natural to drag a good thing down. It takes a lot of control to let it be what it is.
I kiss him goodbye. I kiss him with everything, and he responds with everything. The day surrounds us. It passes through us, between us.
“That’s the nice note,” I tell him when it’s through. And before we can say anything else, I leave.
Later that night, right before sleep, he calls me. I never get calls from him—he always texts. If he wants to let me know something, he lets me know, but he rarely wants to talk about it.
“Hey!” I answer, a little sleepy but mostly happy.
“Hey,” he says.
“Thank you again for today,” I tell him immediately.
“Yeah,” he says. Something’s a little bit off in his voice. Something has slipped. “But about today?”
Now I’m not happy or sleepy. I’m wide awake. I decide to make a joke.
I say, “Are you going to tell me that we can’t cut class every day? That’s not like you.”
“Yeah,” he replies, “but, you know, I don’t want you to think every day is going to be like today. Because they’re not going to be, alright? They can’t be.”
It’s almost like he’s talking to himself.
“I know that,” I tell him. “But maybe things can still be better. I know they can be.”
“I don’t know. That’s all I wanted to say. I don’t know. Today was something, but it’s not, like, everything.”
“I know that.”
He sighs. Again, I have to tell myself this sadness is not something directed at me. It has to be directed at the fact that he can’t be with me.
“That’s all,” he says.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. If he’s worried that I’m really going to expect this from him every day—he can’t think that, can he? I decide to leave it alone. I say, “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, you will.”
“Thanks again for today. No matter what trouble we get into tomorrow for it, it was worth it.”
“I love you,” I say.
It’s not like Justin to say I love you back. Most of the time, he resents it when I say it, accuses me of saying it just to see if he’ll say it next.
Sometimes he’s right. But that’s not why I’m saying it tonight. And when he responds by saying “Sleep well,” that’s more than enough for me.
I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but for once I’m really looking forward to it.